Correspondence Land grabbing in Isabela behind the veil of development

This article is available in PilipinoBisayaHiligaynon

Rich in sea and land resources, Divilacan, a town in Isabela province, leans against the Sierra Madre and overlooks the Pacific Ocean. It has 12 barangays with around 6,000 residents. It has an area of 89,000 hectares. Much of the town can be considered ancestral land of Dumagat and Agta minorities. It was declared a municipality in 1969.

But behind the promoted image of a paradise, the people of Divilacan live in backward circumstances. Most residents have no title or any proof of land ownership. The landlords, bureaucrat-capitalists and their foreign and local partners took advantage of this to rob the indigenous peoples and peasants of their land.

Two grandiose infrastructure projects—the 62-kilometer Ilagan-Divilacan Road and the Divilacan Airport—were undertaken benefiting the land grabbers. The Ilagan-Divilacan Road connecting the town to the Isabela capital, is portrayed as “development.” But instead of progress, it brought disaster to the people when almost an entire village and farms in Barangay Sapinit was buried in a landslide in 2019. This was due to the construction that cut mountain ridges and fell trees along the path of the roads. The road was made to pass through the protected forest of Sierra Madre.

In 2013, the local government duped the Agta Sapinit Tribal Council to consent to the project in exchange for irrigation, school, health centers and other services for the Sapinits. These promises remain unfulfilled. The road did not help farmers market their products. Instead, it paved the way for land grabbing by politicians and local and foreign businesses. Land-grabbers mobilized the fascist 95th IB.

It was in 2014 when police and goons of former governor Faustino Dy Jr violently demolished the community in Barangay Dipudo to give way for the international airport. It covered the 112-hectare coastal land and 8-hectare coconut plantation. Using his position, Dy forced the residents to sell him their land for ₱250,000 and agree to be relocated. Dy moved them to a forested section of the Northern Sierra Madre Natural Park (NSMNP). The place is around 14 kilometers from the coast where they source their food and livelihood.

The state also wants to kill them by starvation because the NSMNP prohibits their livelihood of swidden farming and charcoal making. Farmers eventually left because of the lack of livelihood. The relocation area was not recognized as a barangay. To this day, construction of the small day care in the area is incomplete. There is no proper water system or other public services. This is despite a ₱3 million budget allocation.

The islands that form part of the Agta ancestral lands were also grabbed. The Dys also seized the 24-hectare Honeymoon Island and made a tourist area. They desecrated the Agta sacred graves where they set up commercial resorts, restaurants and other facilities. Dy did the same to Gay Island, which he gave as “gift” to Jose Mari Antonez, a Smartmatic official.

Farmers face grave threats of their land being taken away after the Provincial Assessors Office canceled land declarations in the town and declared them as “public land.” This will facilitate land grabbing administered by the local government itself. It sells the prime lands, especially those along the coast.

The “public land” supposedly for the people will benefit only a handful under the state acting as the biggest landlord. The various government schemes of land grabbing have long been exposed to the people of Isabela, especially to the indigenous Agtas. In the past, it took the form of establishing the NSMNP, then the National Greening Program, and today, the Coastal Development Plan.

Land grabbing in Isabela behind the veil of development